The Republicans have declared war against Dodd-Frank. But what kind of war is it, and on what fronts are they waging this war? I think there are at least three campaigns, each with its own strategic goals and tactics. Distinguishing these campaigns from each other will help us understand what Republicans are trying to do and how to keep them in check.
First, to understand the Republican campaigns, it’s useful go over what Dodd-Frank does. Dodd-Frank can be analogized to the way we regulate driving. First, there are simple rules of the road, like speed limits and stop signs, designed as outright prevention against accidents. Then there are efforts to help with stabilization if the driver gets in trouble, such as anti-lock brakes or road design. And then there are regulations for the resolution of accidents that do occur, like seat belts and airbags, designed to avoids worst-case scenarios.
These three goals map onto Dodd-Frank pretty well. Dodd-Frank also puts rules upfront to prevent certain actions, requires additional regulations to create stability within large financial firms, and lays out plans to allow for a successful resolution of a firm once it fails. Let’s graph that out:
Prevention: Dodd-Frank created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), reforming consumer protection from being an “orphan mission” spread across 11 agencies by establishing one dedicated agency for it. The act also requires that derivatives trade with clearinghouses and through exchanges or else face additional capital requirements, which brought price transparency and additional capital to the market that brought down AIG. Another piece is the Volcker Rule, which separates the proprietary trading that can cause rapid losses from our commercial banking and payment systems.
Stabilization: Dodd-Frank also provides for the expansion of capital requirements across the financial sector, including higher requirements for the biggest firms relative to smaller ones, as well as higher requirements for those who use short-term funding in the “shadow” banking sector relative to traditional banks. These firms are designed by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC).
Resolution: The firms FSOC designates as systemically risky have to prepare themselves for a rapid resolution for when they do fail. They have to prove that they can survive bankruptcy without bringing down the entire system (an effort currently being fought). The FDIC has prepared a second line of defense, a special “resolution authority” (OLA) to use if bankruptcy isn’t a viable option in a crisis.
These elements of the law all flow naturally from the financial crisis of 2008. It would have been very helpful in the crisis for there to be more clarity in the derivatives market, more capital in shadow banks, and a process to resolve Lehman Brothers. Maybe these are great ways to approach the problem or maybe they aren’t, but to suggest they have no basis in the crisis, as the American Enterprise Institute comically does, is pure ideology.
But ignore the more ridiculous arguments. The actual war against Dodd-Frank is much more sophisticated, and it’s being waged on numerous fronts. Let’s make a map of the battlefield:
There are three distinct campaigns being waged:
Guerrilla Deregulation. The goal here is to undermine as much of the efforts of derivatives regulation, the Volcker Rule, and the CFPB as possible through quick, surprise attacks. This, in turn, has a chilling effect across regulators and throws the regulatory process into chaos.
The main tactic, as in any good guerrilla campaign, is to do hit-and-run ambushes of key, important targets vulnerable to raids. David Dayen had a helpful list of some key bills that must pass in 2015, bills likely to be perfect targets for a good guerrilla raid. The guerrilla campaign had a major victory in weakening the Section 716 “push-out” rule in the Cromnibus bill. And that will probably be a model going forward for these tactics, replicated in the recent attacks we’ve seen, down to counting the small handful of Democrats signing on as some sort of concession of bipartisanship.
Another guerrilla element will be the focus on victory through attrition. It’s not like the House Republicans have their own theory of how to regulate the derivatives market, or that they are making the full case against the Volcker Rule or the CFPB, or even proposing their own anything. They are winning simply through weakening both the rules and the resolve of reformers.
Administrative Siege: Aside from the guerrilla war of deregulation, the GOP is also waging war on another front, through a long-term siege of the regulatory agencies. This includes blockading them from resources like funding and personnel, consistent harassment, discrediting them in the eyes of the broader public, and weakening their power to act. This is a long-term battle, going back to the beginning of Dodd-Frank, and their terms are unconditional surrender.
The seriousness of this campaign became clear when the GOP first refused to appoint any director of the CFPB unless there was a complete overhaul to weaken it. This campaign has continued against the CFTC, and now extends to the FSOC trying to designate firms as systemically risky. The recent House bill to extend cost-benefit analysis to financial regulations, where it has little history, unclear analytical benefit, and could easily lead to worse rules, is also part of this siege.
One key argument the GOP is pushing is that the regulators are historically too powerful and out of control. As House Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling said to the Wall Street Journal, the CFPB is “the single most unaccountable agency in the history of America.” This is just silly agitprop. The structure — independent budgets and a single director — looks exactly like their counterparts in the OCC. It’s not only subject to the same rule-making process as other regulators, but other regulators can in fact veto the CFPB, making it significantly more accountable compared to any other agency.
The same is being said about FSOC. Note that there’s always room for improvement; Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) have some ways to improve the transparency of FSOC here. But as AFR’s Marcus Stanley notes, the House’s recent FSOC bill “appears better calculated to hinder FSOC operations than to improve its transparency.” Indeed, as Better Markets notes, this FSOC battle is in large part over the regulation of money market funds, a crucial reform in fixing shadow banking. But making government work better isn’t the goal of the siege; this campaign’s goal is to break these agencies and their ability to regulate the financial system.
Reactionary Rhetoric: The goal of this ideological programming campaign is to push the argument that Dodd-Frank simply reinforces the worst part of the bailouts and does nothing productive toward reform. Instead of a series of methods to check and reduce Too Big To Fail, this campaign argues that Dodd-Frank does worse than fail. Following the rhetoric of reaction, reform simply makes the problem far worse. The point here is to remove the FDIC’s ability to put systemically risky firms into a receivership while also preparing the ground for a full repeal.
Advancing the argument that Dodd-Frank has made the bailouts of 2008-2009 permanent and serves only to benefit the biggest financial firms has become a marching order for the movement right. It was basically the entire GOP argument against Dodd-Frank in 2012 (Mitt Romney calling the act “the biggest kiss” to Wall Street), and it still dominates their talking points. If this were the case, the largest banks would receive a large Too Big To Fail subsidy, and we’d subsequently see a reduction in their borrowing costs.
Major studies tells us that the opposite is the case; since 2010 Too Big To Fail subsidies have fallen instead of stabilized or increased. This doesn’t mean the work is done – we could still see a major failure cause systemic risk, and just “avoiding catastrophic collapses” isn’t really a headline goal for a functioning financial system. There’s also little evidence that Dodd-Frank enriches the biggest banks; firms go out of their way to avoid a SIFI designation, which they wouldn’t if there were a benefit to them, and Wall Street analysts take it for granted that capital requirements and other regulations are more binding for the largest firms.
There could be a productive discussion here about finding a way to reform the bankruptcy code to help combat Too Big To Fail while keeping resolution authority as a backup option. That backup option is key though. Unlike OLA, bankruptcy is slow and deliberate, isn’t designed to preserve ongoing firm business, doesn’t have guaranteed funding available, can’t prevent runs from short-term creditors, and has trouble internationally. But again, the point for Republicans isn’t to try to come up with the best regime; it’s to discredit the effort at reform entirely so the other campaigns, and the overall campaign for repeal, can be that much easier.
Why do Republicans want all this? The answer you will normally hear is that they are in the pocket of Wall Street or in the thrall of free-market fundamentalism. And there’s truth to that. But they’ve also created a whole institutionally enforced counter-narrative where there was no real crisis and Wall Street committed no bad behavior except for when ACORN made them. This narrative is, bluntly, dumb. But it is the narrative their movement has chosen, and movements have a way of forcing well-meaning people who’d otherwise want to find good solutions to fall in line.
2015 will require reformers to wage their own campaigns to push additional reform (here’s a start), push for stronger action from regulators, and make the public understand the progress that has been made. But first we need to understand that while conservatives may look like they are running a smash-and-grab operation when it comes to Dodd-Frank, it’s actually a quite sophisticated series of campaigns, and they are already winning battles.